Tough run defense is a key to success for most NFL teams. Or at least that's what the pigskin "pundits" would want you to believe.
But our look at the worst run defenses in history – 19 teams have surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground over the course of an entire season – yields mixed results. Or, at the very least, the importance of run defense has diminished in recent years as offenses have grown to depend more on the pass.
Three teams from the 2000s make the list of worst defenses ever, for example. One was horrendous – 0-16, in fact. But another won the Super Bowl. The third went 13-3.
The 0-16 team was littered with problems in all areas, beyond just run defense. The other two teams possessed tremendous passing games on offense. Historically, though, as you'll see, the worst run defenses in history were fielded by poor teams. No surprise there. But the teams on the list are certainly interesting ... plus, we don't know of any other outlet that tracks this kind of meat-and-potatoes data.
So here's a look at the worst run defenses in NFL history. And below you'll some of the conclusions we've drawn from the list.
There's been an odd recent spate of bad run defenses
Just 19 defenses in history have surrendered 5.0 YPA on the ground or more – and we're taking all the way back to the Pleistocene Age of Pigskin in the 1930s, when the NFL started keeping records.
That's eight decades of football. Yet three of the worst run defenses in history played between 2003 and 2008. It's not a huge anomaly, but it is certainly a change in recent history. Keep in mind that there's not one team from the 1980s or 1990s on the list of worst run defenses ever. But then suddenly we've witnessed three of the worst run defenses in history from 2003 to 2008.
The 2008 season, in particular, was a real bad year for run defenses. The historically inept 0-16 Lions joined the short list of teams that allowed more than 5.0 YPA (14th on the list), while the Broncos and Chiefs were just couple of bad spots by the officials shy of joining the Lions on this list.
The 2008 Broncos surrendered 2,337 yards on 469 rush attempts (4.983 YPA). The 2008 Chiefs were a micro-shade worse, surrendering 2,543 yards on 509 attempts (4.996 YPA). The 2008 Rams (4.94) and Falcons (4.93) also closed in on that ignominious 5.0 YPA mark.
The 2009 season saw a return to normalcy: the Buccaneers fielded the NFL's worst run defense last year, allowing 4.78 YPA – better than several teams from the year before.
Praise for the exceptional 2006 Colts
The 2006 Colts fielded the seventh worst rush defense in NFL history. As we noted that season
, most of the teams at the top of the list of worst run defenses had deep institutional reasons for their inability to stop the run (see more below).
In the case of the Colts, they were something of a miracle. They won the Super Bowl! Just five of the 19 teams on our list of worst run defenses in history produced a winning record, and none beside the 2006 Colts came close to a championship, let alone won it. (The 2003 Chiefs went 13-3 but failed to win a single playoff game – they were bounced by the Colts in the division round.)
As you know, Faithful Peyton Papists in Indianapolis insist on the infallibility of their quarterback and assign no blame to him for any failure, no matter how egregrious it was to normal people. But the fact that the Colts won a Super Bowl with one of the worst run defenses in history is certainly a sign to them that their pigskin prophet does in fact walk on water.
The Indy defense certainly improved dramatically in the 2006 playoffs. But that's splitting hairs. Let's give the Peyton Worshipping Colts fans their due. In this case, they have a statistical reason to gloat.
Some teams were literally run out of business
The 1934 Cincinnati Reds, the 1950 N.Y. Yanks and 1950 Colts fielded the three worst run defenses in NFL history. Each team went out of business soon after finding they were unable to stop NFL running backs.
The Reds and Colts both folded in the immediate aftermath of their defenseless seasons. The Reds went 3-14-1 in their two NFL campaigns (1933-34). The Colts went 1-11 in their one NFL season after four years competing in the AAFC. The Colts reemerged under new ownership in 1953.
The Yanks bumbled on through another fruitless campaign in 1951 before packing it in. They went 9-24-3 in their three seasons as the N.Y. Bulldogs (1949) and Yanks. All three teams fielded atrocious defenses.
The anomaly that proves the rule
Interestingly, the 1950 season produced two of the worst run defenses ever. And as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have often shown, when you find a statistical anomaly, you typically find a sound reason.
In the case of 1950, the Yanks and Colts were two NFL newcomers. The Yanks, as noted above, were an NFL expansion team in 1949 (the same owner ran the Boston Yanks from 1944 to 1948), while the Colts had played in the AAFC from 1946-49.
Clearly, these two teams had difficulty competing in the new league. The Colts, in fact, fielded what was probably the worst defense, period, in the history of the NFL, surrendering 514 points in just 12 games (42.8 PPG) in their first season in the Big Leagues. Not even the Lions of recent vintage have approached that kind of defensive futility.
The 1950 Rams, meanwhile, set an NFL scoring record that year, with 466 points in 12 games (38.8 PPG), edging out the 2007 Patriots (36.8 PPG) as the most explosive team in history.
The 1950 Rams feasted on those woeful Colts and Yanks. They hung 70 on the Colts in their one game against them, and then lit up the Yanks for 88 points in two games. That's 52.7 PPG against these NFL newcomers.
The 1961 Vikings (5.41 YPA), meanwhile, fielded the fifth worst run defense in NFL history. They were an expansion team that season. The 1953 Colts (5.20 YPA) were also an expansion team - the reborn Colts after a two-year hiatus. The 1960 Cowboys (5.02 YPA) were an expansion team - not even the legendary defensive coach Tom Landry could stop opposing ballcarriers with an expansion club.
The 1961 Raiders (5.10 YPA), the pre-Al Davis Raiders, were in their second year as a whipping boy in the two-year-old AFL; the 1969 Bengals (5.07 YPA) were in their second year as an AFL expansion team. Like Landry with the 1960 Cowboys before him, Paul Brown was a legendary coach who had trouble stopping the run with a new franchise.
The all-encompassing futility of the 2008 Lions
Finally, we spare no opportunity to beat up on the hapless Lions. It's like a hobby. In fact, there's some Lions fans who writes to us with glee everytime we do, hoping that our missives will finally spur the franchise to competence.
In any case, as most football fans know, the 2008 Lions were the first 0-16 team in history. As we've noted several times, the Lions are the first 0-16 team in history because they fielded the single worst pass defense in the history of the game (109.X Defensive Passer Rating).
However, they made up for their inability to stop people through the air by failing to stop them on the ground, too: the 2008 Lions surrendered an awful 5.14 YPA.
It's simply amazing that a team in this day and age of so-called "parity" could be so historically inept in so many basics of the game. Then again, it's amazing in this day and age of so-called "parity" that a team could go 0-16.